By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: Key multiple messages have been transmitted by US President Trump during and immediately following his important April 6-7, 2017 summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, the former’s luxury home at Palm Beach, Florida.
First, Trump’s April 7 decision ordering cruise missile strikes from warships in the Mediterranean Sea against Syria’s Sharyat airbase – in response to Syria’s April 4 chemical gas attack in Idlib murdering 87 civilians including women and babies – not only represents the first time that the US has directly targeted President Bashar Assad’s forces but, more significantly, sharply underlined Trump’s decisiveness as Commander-in-Chief.
Secondly, Trump’s swift action, triggered by an egregious violation of all norms of civilized behaviour by Damascus, suggests than an “America first” policy is not tantamount to isolationism, nor that his foreign policy would be devoid of any moral content.
While Trump’s decision has been greeted with widespread international support, in the West and the Gulf among others, it has predictably been condemned by Moscow, Damascus and Tehran. Thirdly, that Trump acted swiftly, but in a measured mode, when the ‘red line’ on chemical weapons use was brazenly crossed by Damascus is a brilliant reminder that former US President Barrack Obama famously backed away from such a decision – even when he himself had drawn such a line!
Jeffery Goldberg, writing on ‘The Obama Doctrine’ in the April 2016 issue of ‘The Atlantic Magazine’ said: “History may record August 30, 2013, as the day Obama prevented the US from entering from yet another disastrous Muslim civil war, and the day he removed the threat of a chemical attack on Israel, Turkey or Jordan. Or it could be remembered as the day he let the Middle East slip from America’s grip, into the hands of Russia, Iran and ISIS.”
By all accounts, Trump played his new role as Commander-in-Chief with consummate skill, following detailed discussions with his key security/military advisers. And though he sent an unmistakably tough message to Damascus and her principal allies, he ensured that his response was proportionate.
Fourthly, although critics were quick to quip ‘one strike does not a strategy make’, the ostensibly one-off military response did not torpedo a then scheduled meeting in Moscow between the American and Russian foreign ministers. A Syria strategy is doubtless in the works; possibly, it could be predicated on the recognition all anti-ISIS forces, including Assad’s, do not operate at cross-purposes.
Fifthly, Trump not just telegraphed an unambiguous message to a defiant Pyongyang declaring that he can act swiftly and militarily, if need be, but also simultaneously signaled to friends and allies alike that America no longer intends to ‘lead from behind’ as was seemingly the norm during the Obama administration.
Notably, on April 9 the US Navy sent a carrier-led strike group towards the Korean peninsula in a show of force against North Korea’s “reckless” nuclear programme, further bolstering the credibility of Trump’s recent declaration that America is prepared to take military action against Pyongyang – alone, if necessary. Hence, who can tell if, by and by, we learn that Pyongyang has agreed to the resumption of six-party talks, on her nuclear/missile programme, in Beijing?
Sixthly, no less attention-worthy is that, despite the fact that China is not implicated in the six-year-old Syrian conflict, the strategic significance of Trump’s strike decision would not have been lost to her, especially as media reports indicate that “Trump informed the Chinese leader personally of the strike as the 59 Tomahawk missiles were winding their way to the Shayrat airbase.”
In any case, what is remarkable is that notwithstanding earlier apprehensions about the Trump-Xi summit, there is scant doubt that the two-day event went off splendidly, as is indicated by the tone and contents of comments by the two principals, not to mention the uniformly optimistic assessment of the Chinese media.
If Trump gushed, “We have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China”, Xi reciprocated his host’s warm words, saying the summit had “uniquely important significance” and thanked the American president for a warm reception. Trump enthused before reporters, “We have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China” and that “Lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.” Xi chimed in saying “We have engaged in deeper understanding, and have built a trust. I believe we will keep developing in a stable way to form friendly relations.”
Noteworthy, too, is that Trump accepted Xi’s invitation for a state visit to China later in the year – in my estimation, sometime before the convening of the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress in November.
Hence, it would not be overly optimistic to suggest that the two most powerful and economically significant nations on the earth will – in their respective enlightened interest – steadily forge ahead in the spirit or framework of cooperation and friendship that was reflected in Mar-a-Lago.
Before concluding, I should mention two additional sets of ramifications that emerge from Trump’s bold but calibrated decision on Syria: one, as it affects the much speculated question of the relative, or absolute, decline of America, and the other, as it impinges on India.
Recalling that recently the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the final weeks of the Obama administration to resolve the Syrian crisis, what they seemed to be signaling to the world was that the United States was no longer ‘indispensable’ in resolving pressing international issues. Trump’s Syrian coup de grace clearly demonstrates that America is still ‘indispensable’ – irrespective of the spectacular rise of China. A corollary to that would to be this: conflict between the US and China is not inevitable.
The above discussion should deliver a quietus on current speculation in India that a souring of relations between Trump’s America and Xi’s China will make India the ‘winner’, including that in a putative US-China trade war. India’s current flirtation with the free-Tibet/Taiwan issues will backfire.
Key multiple key signals from Mar-a-Lago
By MR Josse